(1) Daily Mail, 1 March 1990
Ladies Day at Downing Street
Tears, her mother, and problems of illegitimacy today
The surprising thing as we arrived at No. 10 was the initial mateyness. ‘Nice to see you,’ said the hall porter. ‘Come in chaps,’ he added to two men arriving immediately after us.
It all had the atmosphere of a rather convivial gentlemen's club, with a portrait of Robert Walpole, two huge Chinese vases on either side of the fireplace and an old fashioned leather chair in the corner.
We were then taken past the Henry Moore sculpture and the huge portrait of Churchill into the waiting room with views over a stone terrace with wooden pots of daffodils. It was a bit like hovering before the arrival of the headmistress and, during the subsequent interview, I was frequently on the verge of putting my hand up whenever I wanted to ask a question.
Everything was very silent and one could imagine how many a terrified Minister expecting to be told he'd been fired has paced up and down nervously on the red carpet. I felt pretty anxious myself and kept mentally rehearsing my questions which were intended to reveal the human side of Mrs Thatcher. I also wanted to know if she prayed and what for, but when I did ask her this she completely ignored it, which is a technique she uses a lot.
She's also very partial to phrases like ‘Please can I explain’, ‘Please may I finish’ and ‘If I might respectfully say so,’ which, I suspect, is a hugely successful technique that has sent many a politician gibbering home to wife or husband. She doesn't talk in sentences so much as entire chapters and she'd be brilliant at that party game where you mustn't reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to anything.
I've never known anybody answer what you thought was a simple, straightforward question with such a continuing flow of words so that you're more confused when she finishes then when you started. The dialogue comes out in a mellifluous stream which is so soporific I was not surprised to see that her Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, was fast asleep behind me. I can well believe that in the end she just wears people down with her verbosity.
Like all politicians she has a tendency to slide into meaningless rhetoric. When asked about the amount of violent crime against women in Britain she ended up talking about litter in Toronto, though I'm damned if I can see the connection.
Mrs Thatcher is far better looking in real life than on television. She has good legs, which she crosses in a film-starry fashion, a pink and white incredibly unlined skin, well larsquouered hair and clearly has often inspired lust as well as terror.
She often weeps, she admitted, but for other people, not for herself. ‘The tears come if you hear of some terrible personal case and we do get some. You know from your own family life of the agonies that they are going through.’ No politician has talked more about the values of the family unit but she herself has always had a powerful career. She qualified for the Bar in the same year that she produced twins and I was interested to know if she thought she had been a good mother. She has certainly been a financially generous one and her propensity for handing out largesse to Mark in particular, when he was younger, occasionally irritated her husband.
‘The children did stay at home quite a time, which I thought was quite a compliment,’ she said ‘and even now if there is a particularly difficult time they will ring me up. You cannot ask, really, for more than that and they will remember birthdays and so on.
We're still a close family, even though we are far flung.’ It was strange to hear of 36-year-olds described as ‘the children’ but this is clearly how she thinks of them. ‘When the children were young,’ she once said, ‘I always had an English nanny.’
In private life everybody testifies to her kindness but many voters see her as harsh and cold. ‘Does this hurt you?’ I asked her and she said emphatically: ‘Yes, of course it does. I think that if you are in the position I am, particularly having taken over under the circumstances which I did, and you have to do things to try to turn your country round, you have to be tough: in the sense that you have to be firm in making decisions.
Now what would be obviously very purposeful, an asset to a man, people sometimes think goes against the grain with women. There are many families I know where it is the matriarch who is strong, keeps the family together, keeps it prosperous, gives the children inspiration, gets them doing their homework, gets them to have ambition and keeps them beautifully turned out. It is not against the feminine nature and some of the most powerful women I have known have been the firm ones who have kept both their family and their business together.’
She was surely speaking partly about herself and I asked what influence her own mother had had on her life. The late Mrs Roberts is rarely mentioned by her illustrious daughter but she admitted: ‘It was not until I had a family of my own and saw the fantastic amount of work there is in bringing up a family that I realised just how she slaved for us. She was a very good housewife, a fantastic cook and she was also a professional dressmaker.
‘We automatically did the do-it-yourself - we had no other money to do differently. She also helped to run the business, helped the women's sewing circle at church. So when people say to me: “You have an extremely busy life,&rsquoq; I say: “So did my mother&rsquoq;. And do not forget, in those days housewifery was much more drudgery. You scrubbed the kitchen floor and, yes, I did … I was very good at it. In our house cleanliness was next to Godliness.
‘You polished the lino, you polished the furniture, you got vinegar and hot water to take off the old polish and you put the new polish on. You had a washing day on Monday, in a dolly tub and you used a mangle, so I realised just how much she sacrificed. You knew that she was always fully occupied and that there was not much time in her life for pleasure.’
Growing up in a small, tight-knit town community has clearly been a formative influence in her life. It's the lack of censure from that kind of community she sees as being one of the causes of the fact that 25 per cent of babies are now born to unmarried mothers.
‘They go to the city, they get a certain amount of anonymity and meet other people who have similar problems. The good Lord arranged that you could not have children without a father and I think for a mother to say I will have one and not know the father is a fundamental denial of the rights of the child.
‘More prosperity coupled with less self discipline and less family life brings more opportunities and more temptation to young people. Freedom is freedom to do good or to do evil. But what really governs the way of life is not only the statute law, it is the unwritten laws which people themselves set, what society and people in that community will tolerate.’ [end p1]
World wars, a united Germany and why she won't give way
by Ann Leslie Senior Foreign Correspondent
Interviewing Mrs Thatcher is like interviewing the Niagara Falls: tough questions are reduced to feeble pebbles over which she pours like a force of nature - sparkling with energy, magnificent, unstoppable.
Curiously, she does not - as her critics maintain - come across as personally arrogant, any more than Niagara Falls does.
It is simply that she is so eager to make sure ‘you grasp my point, don't you?’, and so certain that once she's given you the facts which have convinced her, you'll be convinced too (‘one moment, please, can I explain the whole thing to you before you come in?’).
She is constitutionally unable to bear the thought that you'll be left with a smidgen of doubt - whether it's about the superiority of beeswax polish over furniture sprays, or the superiority of an ‘agreed framework’ for German reunification over woolly-minded alternatives.
Yes, she does use the unfortunate Royal ‘we’ which gives such innocent delight to her enemies, as in ‘we have ozone-friendly hairspray’ - but in practice ‘we’ sounds like an unhappy synonym for ‘one’. She really should recite into the mirror ‘Margaret, we must not say we!’ ten times before breakfast.
Unlike other politicians I have interviewed, she is curiously ingenuous; she actually means what she says. A favourite politician's trick is to insist on answering an earlier, easier question, rather than deal with one which spells trouble.
When I flung a pebble into the flow with a poll tax accusation, she turned to ‘finish off’ a softer question but, in case I thought she was being evasive, she added: ‘I'll come back to the poll tax - I'm not running away from the poll tax!’ To which I replied: ‘If I were you, I would.’ But she didn't. She believes in the damn thing.
The fact is she does not ‘run away’ from anything; she clearly adores a good fight but often runs out of time (as in our group interview) to score knockout blows on every issue, large or small.
She denied she was a frightening person, and genuinely seems to believe it. However, at one point, the tip of the iceberg of her fury with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl showed above water, and I suddenly felt sorry for Kohl. Her eyes become very round, her ‘more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger’ smile vanishes, her sentences become short, sharp bullets of fury.
At first she tried to avoid overt criticism of him but shards of rage showed through nonetheless. Referring to a meeting of the Berlin Four-Power Ambassadors, she snapped: ‘The Germans did not like that, although we have tried to keep Berlin free for quite a long time and we have carried out our duties!’ I felt she could scarcely refrain from snorting: ‘What ingratitude!’
Was she ever defensive? Yes. Not about mortgage rates (a temporary problem), not about poll tax (once people appreciate the facts, they'll come round), not about the rise of violent crime or collapse of the family unit under a ‘pro-family’ administration.
It's the accusation that her outspokenness on foreign policy has left her internationally isolated which infuriates her and drives her on to the defensive.
Even before I touched on her ‘isolation’, she took pains to tell me that many of the current initiatives for creating a ‘framework’ for the future shape of Europe originated ‘here’ in No 10.
While appearing not to listen to others, she is, in fact listening on several levels: ‘Where did they first come to say it? It was Here! Where did we get it first? It was from Here!’ She interrupted her flow with an accusatory: ‘You're smiling!’ (Indeed I was, somewhat sceptically). Clearly my smile and the issue of her isolation (I pointed out) ‘puts you on the defensive’.
‘It is a pretty crowded and cosy isolation when I have had in here in the last week …’ (a roll call of international power names) ‘it is a pretty busy isolation!’
She is slimmer, prettier and less Boadicea-like in person than on television. She has genuine charm, (she fusses in a motherly way if she doesn't think you're comfortable, compliments you on the colour of your jacket, does not behave as if she were ‘bestowing an honour’ on you by her very presence), and refuses to admit that she consciously uses sex appeal to get her way. (Many men, including Gorbachev, believe that she does, to great effect).
‘Chemistry is Not to do with looks, it's personality.’ The Tories may be confused and demoralised at the moment, but not their boss. I thought back to the time I first met her when, as Leader of the Opposition, she visited China in 1977. The energy is the same, but power has made her sleeker, younger-looking and infinitely more confident.
Then, she would show signs of almost girlish nervousness at dealing with a Great Man: now the nervousness is likely to come from the Great Man, not her. But she can still sound girlish. At the end of our interview, she was handed a scribbled note about the Nicaraguan election results.
‘Marvellous! Mrs Chamorro has won! Ortega has conceded defeat with 60 per cent of the vote counted! Terrific!’ There was something almost child-like and uncomplicated in her glee.
But then the international stateswoman soberly interrupted herself: ‘Mrs Chamorro is a remarkable woman’ she told me, ‘but she has some terrible problems ahead, terrible.’ Not unlike yourself, I thought.
The following is an exact account of my question and answer session with the Prime Minister.
Your cautious attitude towards reunification strikes many Germans as insulting, with its implication that, in view of its history, a powerful, united Germany cannot be trusted to remain democratic and un-militaristic, but must be kept under control by Nato and the presence of American forces.
‘I think it would be quite Wrong to ignore the realities of the past! It was because people thought that after World War I there could never be another world war, that they let down their guard. The fact is that the tyrants have been warned throughout history and they are not going to stop being warned now.’
You mean specifically German tyrants?
‘One moment, please can I explain the whole thing before you come in? Had the United States, without whom we could not have won World War I, stayed on the continent of Europe, then I do not believe World War II would have happened. Germany will [end p2] reunify - that has been in every Nato communique almost since Nato began - but knowing the realities of the past, knowing some of the mistakes we made between World War I and World War II. I believe that the greatest duty of my generation - and it's Mr Gorbachev's generation, too - is to see that we keep our guard up so that it can't happen a third time.’
Mrs T emphasised that why she'd originally wanted unification to ‘slow down’ was because she wanted unification to occur within an agreed international ‘framework for the way ahead’ - involving Nato. The European Community and a 35-nation Helsinki Conference later this year. For example:
‘Let us sort out the immense problems unification will cause to the European Community if we are asked suddenly to take in East Germany - a country which has basically never known any democracy, never known any market economy and which, with a population of 17&en;18million is the size of Belgium, Denmark and Ireland combined, with Infinitely more problems!’
But aren't events moving too fast to get your international ‘framework’ in place in time?
‘No, they are not,’
But unification is happening anyway because East Germany is simply collapsing into West Germany.
‘We ARE getting that framework now as a consequence of my saying: “Look, let us get a framework for the way ahead&rsquoq;. I can't over-emphasise the importance of this: when you have things breaking up, as has been happening in Europe, you can't just watch them breaking up without trying to find a framework for the way ahead. A few weeks ago, when the unification issue began, Germany was saying: “Well, we don't quite know what will happen to Nato but it'll sort itself out later.&rsquoq; We are saying: “No, the lessons of history are such that we must keep our safeguards.&rsquoq;
Kohl is refusing to confirm Germany's post-war borders, which is very frightening to Poland as a valuable chunk of Poland used to be Germany before the war.
‘I am the first person who said: “What about the borders?&rsquoq; What we're talking about concerning unification is the Present Federal Republic of Germany and the Present Eastern Germany. And Poland is very worried. We had the Polish Premier here on an official visit and he said to me: ‘We simply must have assurances on borders - don't you realise how we feel in Poland?’ And I do …
‘What Helmut Kohl said is: “Look, it will be all right&rsquoq;, but I think we ARE a little worried, that it would be so much better if he simply said: “Yes&rsquoq;.’
Other borders are also likely to change; for example, if Lithuania and other republics break away, the Soviet Union will begin to disintegrate. What's your attitude to that eventuality?
‘This takes us straight into the Helsinki Accords of 1975, under which 35 countries agreed that present borders should not be violated, but that they Could be changed by peaceful agreement.’
But what if, say, the Lithuanians refuse to wait for a Helsinki-style agreement before simply grabbing their independence?
‘They may not wait, and one understands that they are in a different position from some of the others because they were, we would say, annexed illegally.
‘I think you'll find that Mr Gorbachev will find a way of coping with this because he's coped with everything else and I think he'll understand the strength of feeling there.
‘Precisely what he'll do I don't know - but what I'm saying is that it's vital that we have a framework like Helsinki in which you Can change borders by peaceful agreement. I am taken to task for accepting the realities of the past, but the realities of the past are straight down the centre of Europe. You then had the Balkan powers, many minorities quarrelling and causing problems.
‘With a proper framework like Helsinki - which involves the United States and the Soviet Union and all the fundamentally European peoples - you can say: “We've got all these problems, let's get together and agree about them.&rsquoq;
‘If Helsinki has a weakness it is that (although it has human rights obligations in it) it has not got democracy and a market economy - because you cannot have political freedom without having economic freedom.
‘It's important to have a great peace structure for the future, which is always backed up by a firm defence - because you never know where troubles are going to come from. For example, we never knew the Iran&slash;Iraq war was going to start in 1980 and that all our oil supplies would then be at risk.’
So it's not time to cut back on defence?
The personal relationship and chemistry between you and President Bush do not seem so strong as between President Reagan and yourself.
‘That perception is strange. I always used to go and have breakfast at the Bushes's house when I was in the States - always, always - and enjoyed it tremendously and still do. I think I've seen George as much as I saw Ron Reagan.
‘I think the idea that I'm not as close to Bush may be because the problems we're having to deal with now are very different.
‘One of the reasons why Ron Reagan and I got on was because we knew each other before we were in power.
‘We knew we had the same beliefs and so there was a fundamental coming together of minds. Moreover, the problems that were uppermost in international politics at that time were problems which required our sort of “standing firm&rsquoq; approach to solutions. The problems today are the problems of transition, we don't quite know where the world is going.
‘But George Bush and I are absolutely at one on issues like the fact that Nato must continue and Germany must not be neutral.
‘That's absolutely vital. It may not seem big to you, but I can only tell you that it is really big!’ [end p3]
Poll tax and why house prices will rise
by Margaret Stone Editor, Money Mail
My hairdresser, my news editor and the taxi driver taking me to Downing Street had only one question for Margaret Thatcher. ‘Ask her about my mortgage.’ So I did - and learned a lot more about hers.
When I put the point that her Government's policies ‘have made life a misery for very many home owners,’ she bridled. ‘Steady the Buffs!’
Mrs Thatcher's sympathy for recent buyers, whom she accepts are ‘in acute difficulty’, is tempered by her almost religious belief, partly based on personal experience, that home ownership is an investment that, in the long run, can't go wrong.
‘I do think they can take some comfort from the fact that the value of their houses will go up.
‘Everyone who has put money into their own home has found their capital go up way beyond those who have saved and added the interest rate on to their savings.’
This is not the Prime Minister, but the voice of someone who made a killing on a house in Chelsea.
‘When we sold Chelsea, I was very busy and, with the money we got for Chelsea, we paid off the mortgage and I put the rest on deposit in the bank. After six to nine months, I looked to see the speed at which house prices had gone up and I knew that we had to get into a house quickly otherwise we should not be able to afford to.’
She is very dismissive of certain City views that house price rises might belong to the past - a view shared by the director general of the Building Societies Association,Mark Boleat, who only this week dismissed as ‘economic nonsense’ the belief that bricks and mortar would always be the best financial prospect.
If the Prime Minister is at one with those who still believe that a house of one's own is the best investment ever, she is uncharacteristically out of tune with them over poll tax.
She concedes that ‘there are certainly some problems to be ironed out’ - but remains unrepentant.
‘The old system of 35million electors and only 17million paying was wrong. If I had kept that old system, the row would have been terrible - we would have been perpetuating something that is fundamentally inequitable.’
And in an interview which was remarkable for its lack of party tub-thumping, she let slip a crowing comment about the London borough of Westminster.
‘There must be a lot of very happy people in Westminster because the community charge is below £200 which shows you what a good Tory council can do …’ I didn't like to say that I lived in Westminster, and have almost begun to feel guilty about the low level of poll tax and its implications.
It would have been churlish because Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister, is a nice woman.
She is also combative, and enjoys a sparring match with other women even if the much-vaunted chemistry with some of her favourite men is missing.
And with a little bit of effort, it is possible to get a word in edgeways. In fact, she needs interrupting. It not only sharpens her responses, it saves her from a surprising loss in her train of thought. [end p4]
Massages, hairspray and an expanding waistline
by Newby Hands Style Editor
Expecting a severe, matronly but elegant woman, I was surprised at pink, powdered Mrs Thatcher in the flesh.
She is immensely charming, with a softer, friendlier manner than we have come to expect. I have to say that after an hour with her - and leaving politics firmly to one side - and as one woman to another, I actually liked her.
As many men will agree, Mrs Thatcher is not averse to using her sex appeal in certain situations. She may be Prime Minister, working 18 hours a day flat-out and one of the world's most respected leaders, but as the pearl earrings, ten denier tights and immaculate lipstick prove, she is also attractive and very feminine.
Her study was redecorated two years ago; out went the rich golds, the masculine browns and gentlemen's club trimmings.
Today, touches of rose pink and cream add a feminine, almost boudoir feel. The honey colour in the Regency-striped wallpaper actually matches her hair - and don't let any woman te you that's coincidence.
Mrs Thatcher's overall style is part British country tweeds and part power dressing, all topped off with Premier polish - that ‘Nancy Reagan’ varnish which keeps every hair in place every nail manicured and never allows a jacket to crease.
The Prince of Wales black, white and tan suit was suitably businesslike the silky chemise was overtly feminine. The black, patent court shoes were a little too high and shiny to be accepted in the Shires - but would, no doubt, be a great success in the Cabinet.
But most surprising of all were the glossy, glistening tights. Usually sold for evening attire, the Prime Minister wears them on her rather shapely legs at 11.30 am.
Her make-up and hair show a professional touch. The lipstick stayed in place through coffee, a glass of water and continuous talking. Her skin is quite astounding; few lines and no dark shadows despite the stress which goes with the job. The hair, unfortunately, has the Hollywood hairspray factor. Swept up and up in a pretty shade of honey gold, every lock was coiffeured to perfection.
The jewellery is reminiscent of the Queen - diamonds, pearls, gold, sapphires and semi-precious stones mix and do not quite match. Not a great style choice perhaps, but a touching and personal statement nonetheless - no doubt worn more for sentimental value.
Finally, a trick of the trade that the professionally ambitious should note: although surrounded by clocks, the Prime Minister's watch is kept exactly five minutes fast.
The following is an exact account of my question and answer session with the Prime Minister.
Do you use alternative or homeopathic treatments - such as aromatherapy - for dealing with stress?
‘I don't use it for dealing with stress - I have learned to deal with stress. But I firmly believe that the way to tackle most things is to try to keep your body systems working effectively. Firstly, you have a reasonably balanced diet; secondly, yes I do believe in some homeopathic remedies; and certainly, I do from time to time - but not very often I'm afraid - have a thoroughly good, strong massage to get the blood circulation going.
‘One is given quite an effective body system and the best way is to really try to keep it working. I naturally enjoy good health but I do try to keep the body systems working which is so much better than having to deal with it when it goes wrong.’
How environment-friendly is No. 10? Have you recently changed the cleaning agents you use in the kitchen or the bathroom?
‘Most of your Ajax cleaners and your Handy Andies are not sprays, they are squeezers. If we do use cleaners, we use ozone-friendly ones.’
Do you have ozone-friendly hairspray?
‘We have ozone-friendly hairspray but until we could get it we went on to pump-action. However, it is not as fine and I was quite glad when we got one or two ozone-friendly hairsprays.’
So you have no aerosols in No. 10?
‘I cannot tell you we have no aerosols but most of the things we use are not aerosols or they are ozone-friendly. I think that places like Tesco and Sainsbury did a really good job getting ozone-friendly. This is using the market to help the environment along.’
You appear to have a wardrobe based on just a few styles of outfit in different fabrics. Is this a working uniform or a development of personal style?
‘It is a development of personal style; it is comfortable and has one very practical use.
‘When you have been sitting around here and have to go across to the House quickly, you can have two skirts with one jacket, so that you do not turn up terribly creased - you can't do that with a dress.
‘And let me be absolutely frank! As you get a little bit older your waist-line does expand and this suit very nicely goes past the waist. I really have found that suits are quite the best things.’
Do you choose an outfit for the official duties of the day or will it depend on what mood you are in?
‘I cannot necessarily do the latter because, for example. I cannot wear today's outfit in the House since we have had television because checks strobe.
‘I tried it once and got thoroughly ticked off! So you do have to take into account television cameras. That's why I am wearing checks today - I can't wear them tomorrow!’
Do you enjoy putting on your accessories, the more personal touches like jewellery?
‘I get dressed as fast as I can - dressing doesn't take long! I know what accessories I have to go with a certain outfit so one doesn't have to think about it.’
Do you manage to shop for clothes?
‘I have a swatch of fabrics sent in which I select from. Then I choose the styles. You buy a few months ahead but buy more often for overseas tours because you need a fresh wardrobe for them.’
What do you wear when you are relaxing?
‘I usually get up late and I flop down and do my boxes in whatever I have got on! They are just old things. I don't wear jeans but I've got culottes which I find very comfortable.’